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Listen. There’s no introduction to Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” only a single note. Her voice emerges. Rough. Direct. Accusing. Denouncing. Her entire performance is predicated on the tightly controlled breath: each word bears the weight of her lungs, none left unarticulated or lost among the bitter poignancy of images made into word.
Placing Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” is an effort in trying to place breath. Simone’s interpretation is no wail or cry. Hers is a performance steeped in a Black tradition of breathing, born of centuries of fugitivity and bearing the scars of a people trying to live in hostile atmospheres. Her “for the leaves to drop” extends “leaves” for a full seven seconds, voice a decrescendo like the wind wailing before a storm or the scream of a siren. Her guttural energy, baptized in anger and disgust as much as sorrow, reverberates as a groan—that deep, nonlexical sound of despair; that low moaning breath when weight crushes the chest. It’s the breath of a person in pain, an attempt to assuage something they have no remedy for.
Her groan is an indictment. It’s an indictment of a world that cuts short the breath of Black people, leaving Black bodies swinging in the trees, or restrained on the side of the road with a knee to the neck. It’s an indictment of the state of Black life, which is always marked by imminent and immanent death. Hers is a groan uttered through tightly clenched teeth.
Yes. If singing with Simone, do it with clenched teeth and clenched fist. [End Page 227]
kimberly bain is John Holmes Assistant Professor in the Humanities in the Department of English at Tufts University. She is completing a book on Blackness and breathing.